Waterloo seems a fairly unremarkable town, with an array of cafes and upmarket stores on the bustling main street. Lying ten miles south of Brussels, it is a place where the wealthy working in the Belgian capital and some tourists hang out.
But it’s the battlefield – three miles away from Waterloo itself – that is the biggest attraction for history enthusiasts. It was here that the Duke of Wellington’s army and European Allies saw off Napoleon’s attempts to take over Europe, thus ensuring a century of British supremacy.
I was in Waterloo with friends at the weekend to witness the bicentenary of the world changing-event. Of course I wasn’t on my own – tens of thousands witnessed the two battle re-enactments, supported by a cast of more than 6,000, some 300 horses, 50 canons and four tonnes of gunpowder.
The vast area of what is today open farmland where Waterloo was fought seemed akin to a festival, with busy food and drink stalls. Sitting out at tables in the sun, we heard many different languages being spoken.
The French person in front of me in a queue at a food stall didn’t seem that keen on drinking Waterloo-named beer. But it was generally a jovial atmosphere, with people playing bagpipes and re-enacters in full costume taking a break in the sun.
We arrived at the site early in the day so we could visit the museums connected by lengthy walks along field-side paths. We passed period-perfect tented camps where the re-enacters were staying for the weekend.
Our starting point was the 1815 Memorial Museum which has an excellent 3D experience that tells the story of Waterloo and displays the variety of colourful uniforms that were worn during the battle.
We then went to the Panorama, a somewhat dated canvas-domed feature that lets you see various scenes from the battle. Most visitors here seemed to be rushing through the exhibit so they could start the climb up Lion’s Mound – a 43metre-high artificial memorial hill, reached by 226 steps and constructed on the orders of William I of the Netherlands to mark the spot where his son (the Prince of Orange) was wounded. Today, it provides an excellent vantage point to survey the surrounding area.
We then headed down to Hougoumont, a walled farmyard that was defended by British troops as Napoleon’s men charged at its gates in fierce hand to hand that lasted for many hours, while the house burned down and many perished. As the day progressed, Napoleon’s men fled. The Duke of Wellington said that “the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo turned on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont”.
For many years Hougomont was just an ordinary farm, but when the last tenant left work began to renovate the site as a memorial to those who died at Waterloo and last week Prince Charles re-opened it to the public. Most of the original buildings burned down in 1815, but in a remarkable feat of luck the chapel and its crucifix survived. Today, the main attraction at the site is a an audiovisual attraction, which despite being informative gets a bit irritating after a while as screens repeatedly twist round as cheesy music is played.
Waterloo was the third in a series of battles that were fought near Brussels in June 1815, but Napoleon’s downfall had been in the making for longer.
Napoleon was “someone who came out of genuinely nowhere” to dominate Europe, said a speaker at a debate I heard recently at the British Library in London. His attraction to some of the French population was that he brought stability after the trauma of the French Revolution and he went someway to getting the economy back on track (although it should be noted others despised him on the grounds of forced conscription and other factors).
But after more than 20 years of French supremacy (with Napoleon’s military career peaking at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805), his army was crushed by Russia (1812), by Austria and Russia (1814) and driven from Spain in 1813-14. The outcomes of these battles culminated in France surrendering and Napoleon being exiled to Elba in the Mediterranean.
Napoleon however plotted a comeback. He broke out of prison in Elba in March 1815 after 300 days inside and, having recruited army units along the way, entered Paris to the tune of “Vive L’Empereur”. Waterloo soon came calling.
On the morning of June 18th Napoleon dismissed his generals’ concerns about Wellington over breakfast: “Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he’s a good general. I tell you he is a bad general, the English are bad troops and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast”.
But Napoleon’s luck was to run out and this was the last time he would be able to raise an army. He was sent for confinement in St Helena – lying in the Atlantic 1,162 miles west of Angola – where he died in 1821.
The re-enacted battle 200 years on from the original was split into two parts, the first on Friday night (“The Attack Of The French Army”) and the follow-up the next day (“The Reaction Of The Allies”) which I attended. Although, friends who had attended both said the two events were very similar.
Starting these re-enactments at 8pm was an interesting point in itself – the actual one start at 11:30am (they both did however finish at 10pm). And while some buildings had been reconstructed and the open field seemed vast, it was still considerably smaller than the original.
We sat in a grandstand near the mocked-up Hougoumont, where much of the fighting took place. Calvary and infantry moved in their units across the field, while canons were fired creating plumes of smoke. But unlike the actual battle few seemed to die (I think I counted some 12 people tumbling to the ground during the two hour event).
There was commentary in English, but given some of the action took quite far away from our grandstand it was at times quite hard to follow. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the re-enactment as it provided a flavour of what Waterloo would have been like.
A British victory?
Many think of Waterloo as a British victory, but it should really be seen as an Allied one (less than 40% that fought in the battle were British – Dutch, Germans and Prussian fighters all played important roles).
Colin Brown, author of The Scum of the Earth, a book published to mark the bicentenary of Waterloo, writes: “Victorian jingoism fuelled one of the most persistent myths about Waterloo: that it was a British – or even more inaccurately, an English victory.”
And with Allied fighters lying on the battlefield in pools of blood for four days, some in the British camp have questioned whether we have should be celebrating the event at all. Some 40,000 fighters died at Waterloo and in the aftermath 300,000 discharged soldiers and sailors were left hungry as they struggled to find work.
Major Harry Smith, who visited the Waterloo battlefield the day after the fighting, observed: “At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, the French cuirassiers were literally piled on top of each other; many soliders not wounded lying under their horses; others fearfully wounded, occasionally with their horses struggling upon their wounded bodies. The sight was sickening, and I had no means or power to assist them.”
And even weeks later, the battlefield was still a terrible scene, as this eyewitness account from August 7th shows:
“There are huge graves or rather piles which are filled with hundreds of dead, where the victors and vanquished are promiscously laid; so lightly had the clay been laid over them, that from one a hand had forced its way above the ground, and in another a human face was distinctly visible. Indescribable was the horror of these objects”.
On the main street in Waterloo, I went into the Wellington Museum. The man himself stayed here the nights before and after the battle when it was an inn. Visitors can see a waxwork model of Wellington at the desk that he used to write his Waterloo victory report (thus giving the battle three miles away its name).
And in a neighbouring room is one of three artificial legs worn by the Earl of Uxbridge who lost his leg in battle. You can also see a large-scale map showing the locations of 125 Waterloo named towns that have popped up in all corners of the world. Unsurprisingly, none are in France.
Some French may want to forget Waterloo given the outcome, but not all are so downbeat. Frank Samson, the French lawyer who played Napolean at the weekend said in advance of the event: “It’s clear that Napolean won at Waterloo”. Wellington was “a frightful Englishman that no one has heard of”.
The build up to the bicentenary commemorations have been gathering momentum for some time.
There has been everything in recent months from radio programme about the arguments from different re-enactors competing to play Napoleon at the big Waterloo battle (there was quite a bit of tension between different contenders from around the world who all thought they had a better claim than others) to a BBC TV documentary looking at unpublished letters from the Wellington family (revealing him to be quite a womaniser and a late convert to electoral reform in Britain).
Wellington Arch in Hyde Park Corner, which is next to Apsley House (one of Wellington’s homes from 1817), has been hosting an exhibition about Waterloo and includes the sword that Wellington himself carried into battle.
Meanwhile, the National Portrait Gallery had a special exhibition on until earlier this month featuring a series of paintings charting his career as a celebrated solider through to a much less popular prime minister, when he faced mobs as he tried to defend the idea of Catholic emancipation.
“Waterloo hero’s bloodstained coat turns up in a cupboard,” reported The Times a couple of weeks ago, in reference to a scarlet frock tailcoat that was worn by Major Thomas Harris at the battle 200 years ago. He is said to have been at a grand ball in Brussels two days before the clash and was immediately told to re-join his unit, so had no time to change.
Major Harris was seriously injured in one of the final cavalry charges, leaving a field surgeon needing to cut open his jacket and amputate his arm. The coat itself was in time sold by the family along with a presentation sword, but his great great grandson has since tracked it down to box under the stairs of a house in north Lancashire.
Back in London, I went to look around the fabulous Apsley House. Although now in the hands of English Heritage, the donor family is still in residence of what is known as “Number One, London”. It houses a statue of Napoleon which Wellington intriguingly used as a hat stand.
One of the most treasured exhibits is a vast oil painting called Waterloo Banquet, completed in 1828 by artist William Salter and bringing to life a major annual social occasion that was hosted by Wellington from 1820 until his death in 1852 to commemorate the victory.
The artwork shows 83 distinguished guests which included officers from the battle. Wellington himself is shown proposing a toast to the king, William IV who is seated to his left. And with the bi-centenary, this tradition is being repeated with descendants of those who fought at Waterloo and the long table is being laid with silver-gilt Portuguese Service throughout the year.
When Wellington died, the streets of London were lined with more than one million people as his funeral cortège made its way through the streets of the capital. “We’ve lost more than a man, we’ve lost the very soul of this country,” said Queen Victoria.
Today, his unpopularity as a prime minster seems to have been forgotten and he is still regarded as a British military hero for defeating Napoleon. And all this means tourists will no doubt continue to visit Waterloo and its nearby battlefields for many years to come.